I came across some statistics on school bullying recently and was dismayed that this practice is accelerating. It was bad enough when I was in high school, but those incidents seem tame in comparison. Still, a single incident had a profound effect on me. I entered high school the size I am now, but during initiation week, I worried that seniors would harass me. I was prepared to stand my ground, but it never happened. I was big, smart, and confident and no one messed with me. Others weren’t so lucky.
I remember two girls in particular, sisters. They were small and rather odd looking with thin white hair and moon faces. The rumor was that their parents were siblings and other students picked on them mercilessly. I attended a very small high school, so I witnessed a lot of the harassment the first year, and it drove me crazy. If someone befriended one of these girls, the bullies would call them names, like “freak lover,” so students were afraid to intervene.
One day in freshman civics class (oh, the irony), a popular male student kept knocking the younger sister’s book off her desk. It was before class, and the teacher had not arrived. The girl would simply pick up the book and not say a word. After the third loud smack of the book hitting the floor, I snapped. I turned and yelled, “Knock it off!”
The room went silent and all eyes turned to me. The popular boy was too stunned to respond, and the ostracized girl almost never spoke, and this was no exception. For a few minutes, we all sat in silence until the teacher came in.
After that, no one picked on the sisters in the classes I attended. No one called me names either. It was a changing moment in my life. I understood, as much as any fourteen year old could, that I could have a positive effect on my small little world if I refused to be afraid of what other people thought or said to me.
For my remaining time in high school, I was a quiet defender of the underdogs. I didn’t start a club or ask anyone to join me, but I spoke up and/or intervened whenever I witnessed bullying. I still do. I like to think I raised my children to be the same way, and I credit my mother for instilling compassion in me.
It frustrates me that thirty years later, we’re still dealing with this cruel phenomenon, and that it seems to be significantly worse. Who are these young people and why are they like that? What does it take to stop bullying? I know it’s more complex now, but it seems that more students could and should intervene with a collective, loud, “Knock it off!”